As I was growing up in central Maine, most of my uncles and aunts had jobs at the mills that provided a ticket to the middle class, homeownership and a degree of comfort. They also had, on average, an eighth-grade education. Since then, all but the paper mills are gone and even papermaking has seen a sharp reduction in employment.
The brief window of time in which large numbers of working-class people could claw their way into a more comfortable middle class via low-skilled, high-wage jobs is all but over. Even while manufacturing is making a small comeback in America, it isn’t bringing the past with it. In the most recent reports by the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 80 percent of the jobs where wages are projected to fall are in manufacturing.
Between the end of World War II and the early 1970s, we saw the greatest expansion of the “middle class” in human history, all driven by jobs that have been disappearing since the early 1970s, when real wages and buying power flattened out. That has left the children and grandchildren of that era, in Maine and across the country, struggling to stay afloat with lower-paying service jobs.
How to revive the middle class – or at least stop its shrinkage – is a continuing and favorite topic of politicians, economists and labor unions. Some say we have to stop the flow of lower-cost products into the U.S., so that consumers will buy more American goods. Tell that to the shoppers at your local Walmart, who have in many ways stayed afloat by offsetting their lower wages with lower costs.
Others, particularly on the right, say we have to get government out of the way of job-producers. The left responds that we really need to stop genuflecting to the rich and powerful and pay more attention to the rest of us. Unions, which had a prominent role in the expansion of the middle class, argue that we need a renewal of worker organizing to turn things around.
They all, of course, make an important point, but none of it has made a dent in the downward spiral of the middle class.
Part of the problem is confusion over how the middle class grew in the first place. For a brief period of time after World War II, the U.S. economy was an unscathed colossus astride a world economy in ashes. We had a banquet table to ourselves, and American workers benefited with a historic rise in their paychecks. But it was not sustainable.
Within just a few decades, the prostrated economies of Europe and Japan began to reclaim their place at the table. As they did, low-skilled, high-wage jobs flowed to their shores, bringing rising incomes there and shrinking jobs here.
At the same time, many of the manufacturing jobs that stayed here were slowly eliminated by mechanization. That’s why the paper industry in Maine is producing as much paper today as it ever did but with a fraction of the workers. Those twin assaults on working people – offshore manufacturing and mechanization – have been compounded by a historic shift of resources, driven by politicians everywhere, from the middle class to the top 5 percent of the population. That has produced the most ominous concentrations of wealth that we’ve seen since the Depression.
So what can be done to revive and expand the middle class? There are no easy answers, but there are certainly plenty of bad ones. The worst of them is some version of going back to a simpler world of yesterday. Politicians generally lead that parade, constantly promising something that they can’t deliver and barely comprehend.
It’s time to acknowledge some tough realities. The days when people could drop out of high school and expect to find lifelong, high-paying jobs with benefits are gone. We’re not going back to Ozzie and Harriet’s economy. People generally won’t pay more for American goods unless they’re better goods. And we’re not going to abandon technology so we can have more jobs.
Instead, we’re going to need to re-commit ourselves to education and retraining for tomorrow’s jobs, where our heads will be more important than our hands. We’ll also need to learn to create more of our own jobs in small businesses, so we can bootstrap our way into the next economy.
The longer we wait around for the past to return, or for some big corporation or politician to rescue us, the worse it will get. Nobody will save us but us.
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy. He can be contacted at: